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Hanover school board votes to keep 'A Place Inside of Me' on library shelves

The outside of The Hanover County School Board.
The Hanover County School Board stipulates that “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart” will be filed in a poetry section, frequented mostly by students in upper grades. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The Hanover County School Board voted 4-3 Tuesday to keep the book “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart” by Zetta Elliott on its elementary school library shelves. The board did, however, stipulate that the book would be filed in a poetry section, frequented mostly by students in upper grades.

The review process began when a parent filed a complaint against the book, which Cold Harbor District Supervisor Michael Herzberg described as “garbage” in a February Facebook post, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He urged the school board to swiftly remove it and any other book it deemed inappropriate.

Following the initial complaint, the book underwent three tiers of review per the district’s policy, and the school board was the final arbiter in the process to determine if the book should be removed. Hanover’s policy specifies four tiers of review when a book is challenged: conference with principal; local school review committee; HCPS instructional material review committee; and school board review.

According to a district spokesperson, Cold Harbor and Elmont elementary schools possess the book, which was not removed from circulation during the challenge. 

Before the Tuesday vote, the board was informed that the district’s instructional material review committee formally recommended keeping Elliott’s book on library shelves but not using it in any instruction or lesson-plan material.

Despite that, three Hanover school board members, including John Axselle, voted against the book remaining on library shelves. Axselle suggested students shouldn’t read about a topic that doesn’t impact them and called the book political because of images of “Black Lives Matter” signs that he said he personally disagreed with.

In 2020, a federal agency determined “Black Lives Matter” wasn’t political or partisan

“I don't know how many parents — any parents, regardless of their color — who have been killed by police within Hanover County. How many children that walk in our doors have that experience? I don't think any of them do,” Asxelle said. “So, why am I going to ask them to read a book — or make a book available to them — so they can experience it? I don't think that's a very positive thing to experience.”

A page from a Zetta Elliott book with people watching coverage of a shooting on TV.
People watch TV coverage of a shooting in their neighborhood in Zetta Elliott's “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart.” (Illustration: Courtesy Macmillan Publishers)

The book’s author Zetta Elliott told VPM News that while she’s glad her book will remain in Hanover school libraries, she said Axselle’s comments represent “cowardice” and are characteristic of a national movement among conservatives to ban books detailing the perspectives of marginalized groups. 

“Does he really think kids don't know — weren’t aware of — the protests [in] the summer of 2020?” Elliott said from Chicago. “I mean, the protests after the murder of George Floyd around Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery … they were worldwide, they weren't simply contained to one particular state or city or county.”

Elliott and other experts have noted the benefits of making books with diverse topics — and featuring diverse perspectives and characters — available to students. 

“If you're raising your child to live in a global society, then you need them to be aware of what's going on. They already know their own experience,” Elliott said. “What they need is to connect with the experiences of people who are different from them because that's how you learn empathy. So, if you don't want your child to learn empathy, then you certainly want to ban all of these books about transgender kids and LGBTQ kids and kids of color.”

Elliott’s book is a poem about several human emotions, with a two-page spread dedicated to each one: joy, sorrow, fear, anger, hunger, pride, peace, compassion, hope and love. 

It starts out with this line: “There is a place inside of me, a space deep down inside of me, where all my feelings hide.” 

Elliott said its pictorial narrative being about a Black boy whose community is healing after a police-involved shooting didn’t come about until she started working with illustrator Noa Denmon. Despite the topic, though, none of the illustrations depict violence, and only one page shows police responding to a “Black Lives Matter” protest. That image accompanies this text: "There is anger inside of me, a fury deep down inside of me, that is sharp enough to slice through air, flesh, bone, and concrete."

“[Denmon’s] idea was to take the stanzas and make them into a narrative using illustrations that showed the response of an entire community to a police-involved shooting,” Elliott told VPM News. “Originally, the poem was just a poem.”

“A Place Inside of Me” received one of the most prestigious national book awards as a 2021 Caldecott Medal honoree, specifically for distinguished picture books.

Hanover residents like Dottie Walsh spoke during Tuesday night’s meeting, urging the board to keep the book on library shelves in the district.

“I'm a daughter of a South Carolina State Police highway trooper in the 1950s, and I approve [of] this book,” Walsh told the board. “I purchased this book and I was moved by this book. It is not about promoting violence at all. It's a book about feelings we all experience in life … how is this bad?”

She pointed out that the book ends with a reminder to love oneself.

“This can help avoid the anger building up inside. It may save the life of oneself, others, and a police officer. Don't you want that?” Walsh asked. “It is where discussions are made and solutions can follow.”

Peggy Lavinder told the board that banning books “goes in direct opposition to ‘The Hanover Promise.’ We can't teach our students that books are something to fear.”

One community member, Robert French, even offered to spend $1,000 of his own money to purchase copies of the book to be distributed to Hanover students if the board voted to ban it. 

“I'm willing to do that because that's what a true patriot who is supportive of the Constitution and free speech does in this country when faced with potential oppression,” French said. “This is a book that I wish was available to me when I was young, when I lost somebody very close to me, when I had the emotions that are described in this book.”